Friday, August 14, 2015

Good Advice

Advice is bullshit.

There's just too much of it - it's fatiguing. This past week I've been subjected to multiple TED talks over a period of five days of how-to-be-a-better-teacher-ing, AKA "professional development".

It's not the how, it's the why.

Be an inspiration.

You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

Ask the right questions.

If you want to change minds, you need to change paradigms.

At some point, here, we went from feeling a vague kinship to these slogans to a vague repugnance - like viewing a lapdog piddle on a carpet that's not ours.

Brimming with cliches, standard wisdom, common sense, and other such drivel, advice has become a nice little industry. From the 7 Habits and other self-help to the endless workshops, speakers, retreats, and whatnot, no magic bullet has appeared. I mean, there's no one book, no one packet, no one anything - which is amusing, since most people seeking advice want it uncomplicated and easily applied. We like magic bullets because they get right to the point. And yes, I'm aware that that sentence can be read as a weirdly out-of-place double entendre.

The issue, I think, is that there are a lot of people out there, and they have different faults/"areas of improvement". So I have friends for whom missing opportunities isn't really a problem, because they are go-getter types. Yet they may struggle in love, or finance, or feel spiritually unfulfilled. But my spiritually-fulfilled, lucky in love, financially stable friend may be banging their head on the table due to missed opportunities.

You could spend your whole life chasing advice. And we know people who do. They are hard to stereotype and make fun of though. I mean, there's something tragic about them. Media, being vicious, hasn't let them off the hook entirely, and in sitcoms and dramas we meet these losers who burble happily about the latest whatever that changed their life. It's easiest to make fun of motivational speakers in this advice-seeking-bashing, because we already know the used car salesman trope, and for the sake of lazy writing, that's who these guru types are cast as.

Clearly there's a meta-level of this at work, too. If the problem with advice-chasers is that so many people need such different advice, it would seem obvious that a way of sorting people would be useful. That way you know what areas you need help in, specifically. Generally.

And so tons of these sorts of programs, speakers, courses, workshops, and retreats sprang up. So you can figure out who you are.

*     *     *

There was a time, not so long ago, when the idea of taking a test, or listening to a guru, or having your boss set aside time for a workshop, in which you discover yourself, was fucking absurd.

How we got here is an interesting tale, and, like most things in our society, it goes back to World War One.

A hundred years ago, psychology was a young, but maturing field. It had been around for about 40 years. Freud, William James, and many others, had been publishing since the 1870s, at least. And in the 1800s, a number of interests in the mind had emerged in intriguing ways such as phrenology (which was unscientific) and Mesmerism (which was). But all of this was individualized.

World War One saw the first real application of psychological categories, with the Stanford-Binet IQ test. To quote myself, from 2011:

"Archimedes applied numbers to experiments. When he stepped in a tub of water he saw the water level rise. So had thousands of others, maybe millions. But Archimedes assigned a number to that rise in water level, then came up with a formula, and a predictive model. Archimedes quantified the natural world. Without this critical connection science would not be possible.

"Alfred Binet applied this principle to psychology and intelligence, while a professor at Stanford, Lewis Terman, popularized it. The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale is more commonly known as an IQ test.

"Not surprisingly, given 20th century trends, the IQ was originally intended for education. The SAT really is the child of Binet. It was given to soldiers in WWI. Its descendants are obsessed over the world over."

The quantification of self arose from the most tragic application of Enlightenment theories of Progress to the real world: trying to quantify soldiers in the pointlessness of the First World War. For philosophers and cultural historians, WWI is a line in the sand. The old ideas of Progress from the late 1700s come abruptly, absurdly, to an end. In philosophy existentialism emerges as the dominating idea of the next 50 years, and in cultural studies and history, a wariness of human reason and purpose comes to the fore. In other words, the modern became sinister, and depressing.

Yet the seed which has now risen to heights of such folly, that people can be categorized into personality types - the basic notion of the IQ - is still with us a century on.

*     *     *

It is a sad state of affairs. The great Modern tragedy of WWI started our self categorization. With the end of WWII, 70 years ago, began a Postmodern reflection on our own lives that, while it began slowly with wakening awareness of a nuclear world, has now become omnipresent. Everyone wants to do life "right" as a consequence. Surely - surely - we can't all be making this up pointlessly as we go along? Is all of life to be seen as void of purpose, with no right answer?

Millennial Losers are figuring this out quickly. In the 90s there was an optimism that looked stunningly like the old Progress of the 1800s. Those Millennial childhoods were pretty darn great. To quote myself, again:

"The economy was roaring, and the middle class seemingly on the swell. Crime was down, optimism up, and no enemies. No one in the world was there to challenge us, and scores of old feuds were being settled. Ireland made peace. The Israelis and Palestinians made peace. The Balkans settled. It was now Pax Americana and for a child with no understanding of the background forces of the world all I knew was life was good."

And then, you know, 9/11.

And Afghanistan.

And Iraq.

And the financial collapse.

And so the youth of this country is sort of figuring out that, no, Progress was not resurrected under Clinton. 

But the notion Millennials are grappling with is still couched in the idea of "adulting" and adulthood. They've only partially realized that it's not just the act of entering your 30s that leaves you reflecting on your lack of preparedness and understanding. Because there is nothing to understand - for the rest of the story. Twenty years into your "adulting" you can still only make your own truth, and figure out your own problems. With luck, you'll get good advice, and leave things off a little better. Likely, you'll screw up anyway. In trying to not make the mistakes of your parents you'll instead overcompensate and make mistakes that your kids will try to rectify for your grandchildren. In trying new ideas out in the workplace, new blunders will arise, and the pendulum will swing towards the original, bad, idea you were attempting to fix. Mistakes in love, especially costly ones, aren't becoming less frequent over time. You aren't really going to be an exception to that.

For one hundred years we have been trying to figure out how to make sense of it all, and who we are, in the light of Progress, psychology, tragedy, absurdity, postmodernism, post-9/11, and Martha Stewart. 

We will never know.  You are still going to fuck things up. It's okay. Except when it isn't. But a seminar, guru, or retreat isn't going to fix it so that fuckups go away. Even the attendees will still end up doing a big thing badly at some point in their lives.

That's what's in the back if Millennial Loser minds: the fear that by adulting badly we'll screw over the human race and planet as badly as our Boomer parents did. And guess what? We will! I guarantee it. No question. Because every generation has since the dawn of the modern era.

But soul-searching, and trying to find ourselves, or the right advice, isn't new, and is a waste of time and funds. Because for all our failures, we will get some things right. If we're not too busy gazing at our navels.

Bernie 2016!

1 comment:

Karen said...

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